Music review: Mozart-added value given to the Master Chorale’s ‘Messiah’ at Disney Hall


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“The Messiah” has seen a lot lately. Glorified (as Christmas staple), deified (by period-practice gospel), denied (in Monty Python’s “Not the Messiah”), diversified (in “Messiah Remix,” a Bang-on-a-Can CD), Handel’s drained redeemer might well be up for a little redemption itself. Bring on the restorative licorice stick.

Mozart’s “Messiah” arrangement -- Handel’s oratorio with instrumental touch-ups (cue the clarinets) and a few minor nips and tucks –- was performed Sunday night by the Los Angeles Master Chorale in Walt Disney Concert Hall. This is the classiest of all “Messiah” conversions. And it received an appropriately classy performance, superbly sung by the chorus, nicely played by the Chorale’s orchestra, gracefully and excitingly conducted by Grant Gershon.


The vocal soloists weren’t stellar. They were family, selected from the chorus. The non-commercial Christmas spirit, I am content to report, still survives in at least a few outposts of the music industry, although I think the Master Chorale could lose the holiday music it piped into the lobby before and after the performance.

The Mozart version is a rarity and a little bit of a puzzler to modern listeners. There was nothing strange in Mozart wanting to make a few modifications in a 48-year-old score for a modern performance in 1789. Musical technology was making rapid strides. The fortepiano had replaced the harpsichord (a way station in the evolution of the concert grand). The clarinet was new and all the rage (thanks in great part to Mozart, who adored it). Brass instruments were becoming reliable.

Mozart thus adapted “The Messiah” for the orchestra of his time and added some nifty instrumental effects and contrapuntal embellishments, just as an arranger today might do for a cover of the Beatles’ “Love Me, Do!” which came out 48 years ago. But the classical world is not like that anymore. The sainted Stravinsky’s 1962 “A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer,” say, is not intended for touch-ups.

What if we didn’t know it was Mozart who made this version of Handel? Would clarinets and flutes colorfully underscoring “good tidings of Zion” and making “His yoke is easy” seem free and easy still transport us to the cherubic realms of Mozart’s piano concertos? Or when trombones darken the scene, would nations furiously rage as they do in “Idomeneo”? Or would we think, as we might were “Metropolis” to be colorized, a masterpiece has been tampered with?

The middle way is safest, avoiding in particular the pretentious operatic style of Andrew Parrott’s recording with the Handel & Haydn Society. ‘The Messiah’ is still Handel’s, and I thought Gershon handled, so to speak, the delicate balancing act exactly right. He was true to Handel and Mozart, ‘The Messiah” being brisk, bright, optimistic, but also seeming newly refined. Gershon’s Mozartean orchestra sounded like an ensemble of inclusion, where a bigger string sections and the winds and brass were there simply to add to the pleasure.

How well the Master Chorale sings these great choruses. Words were well articulated, textures always clear, and the spirit continually high. The vocal soloists -- soprano Deborah Mayhan, mezzo-soprano Tracy Van Fleet, tenor Jon Lee Keenan and bass Steve Pence -- joined the Master Chorale in the 10 years Gershon had been music director. Keenan, in his third season, is the most recent, and he is someone to watch. His sure tenor sailed comfortably through tricky embellishments.


-- Mark Swed